Back when I was in college I was a secret writer. I’ve been a writer forever, and I know this because the earliest memories of my independent self meet all 10 of the points laid out by Word Bitches in 10 Ways to Know You’re a Writer.
Of course back then Social Media meant the phone and friendship pins, but Hell, I guess that just means I’m old.
But I digress. The point of this post is what compelled me to come out of hiding. Not that I quite have the nerve to proclaim myself from the tops of mountains, but it’s not a secret anymore.
As I neared the end of my major hopping journey, it turned out I’d ended up with an English degree. It just kind of happened. And I was secretly thinking about going on for an MFA in writing. Which of course meant that I needed to talk to people about writing. My writing.
My adviser hated me, so she was out. My Chemistry instructor loved me, but she taught Chemistry, so what good was she? I went through each of my options and settled on approaching Herb.
He listened while I meekly laid out my dream. It was the first time I’d ever said it out loud. When I was done, he nodded once and gave me a list of materials he wanted from me before he’d agree. A dialogue. A completed Flash Fiction piece. A submitted research paper. The first 50 pages of a longer work. And the letter I would be submitting with my application.
Three of us were asking for letters of recommendation from him for MFA programs, and we all provided him with the requested material. Then we waited.
Weeks went by and we chatted amongst ourselves. Did he hate us? Forget us? We were all hand-wringing puddles of neurosis by the time he began returning his bundles.
One girl was nearly paralyzed by his statements. Words like ‘efficient’ and ‘acceptable’ were included in the letter. It wasn’t bad, but he had clearly labeled her a novice in need of a great deal of guidance, which he thought her chosen program would provide. But it was hardly glowing in the way we all would want letters of recommendation to be.
The second girl took the bundle back and refused to share, beyond saying that she thought the letter would help her, but that she didn’t think he liked her work.
Maybe this was not such a good idea.
He handed me my packet two days later. I grasped it, but he didn’t immediately let go. “I don’t know if this is going to help you. You’ve only chosen one school, and it’s one that I have publicly criticized for their selection process.”
For two more days I didn’t even open the envelope.
Finally my future husband did it for me. He read silently, then handed it over.
I read it quickly. Then I read it again. Then I reached for the dictionary and read it again. It was part of the very first paragraph that threw me:
“. . . an Iconoclast without the I, Ms. Russell is able to create an environment in which the reader’s beliefs are challenged in ways designed to illuminate, rather than to shock or offend.”
What in hell is an Iconoclast?
Oxford said this:
- 1a person who attacks or criticizes cherished beliefs or institutions.
- 2a destroyer of images used in religious worship
Whoa! What did I give him?
I had to exert my full reading comprehension skills to make sense of what I was reading. Not only was he complimentary, he raved about me.
This man, whom I had secretly wanted to grab by the lapels and plead for him to be my mentor, is raving about me?
The letter held what were to me, astonishing statements with phrases like, “exceptional research skills” and “an engaging, fully formed voice of sincerity” (to be fair, “if not tact” was the last part of that sentence!).
It was apparent he thought I was actually good at this writing thing.
The door that had been firmly closed against my secret popped open.
And I’ve never been able to fully close it since.
So I owe Herb my thanks.
Several times over the past few years, I have thought about seeking him out, expressing my gratitude. But life always seemed to get in the way.
Plus, I always fear I am forgettable. Would he even remember me if I reached out?
Last week, I decided it was time.
But when I Googled his name, hoping for his address, I instead found news of his death, only three weeks before.
So now I am consumed by regret. Was my life so busy that I couldn’t offer a moment of thanks to the man who changed my self-image?
And how vain am I to decide that whether or not he remembered me, would matter when that gratitude was expressed.
What teacher wouldn’t want to know how dramatic their impact had been on a student; what person wouldn’t want to know they were capable of inspiring such faith?
That we never have enough time is a lesson I should have learned by now. At least once a year for the past decade I have lost someone I love. It’s like living in a perpetual state of mourning.
Yet, I still haven’t figured it out.
If you have something to say, say it.
Words are important.
So – Thanks, Herb. You set me free.
But I still wish I knew what you meant by, “Iconoclast without the I.”